Gridiron Teaching Academy
Ten days. Twenty practices. And, one scrimmage game. That was the length of my coaching career. I was junior in college when I was asked to coach the defensive backs of my high school football team. I had two weeks. After that, I was heading back to Earlham for my own two-a-days. It was a short coaching career. But, it left three indelible marks.
1. Great things happen when you blur the line between Coach and Player.
I did all the drills with my players. I tackled dummies. I pushed the sled. I ran suicides. It felt natural. I was preparing for my own season. And, since I was running alongside of them, I was in a better position to nudge, cajole and challenge them. When their heads were raised to the heavens gasping for air, I could say “I’m right there with you.” When they were unsure that they could continue, I could ask “Can you do one more?” And, since I was experiencing what they were experiencing, they could and they would. I earned every bead of their sweat with my sweat.
2. Compared to a Coach E.T. has a weak-ass heart-light.
It was not a game winning play. We lost the scrimmage. It was not a play that would make the highlight reel. But, it was a play that one of my players thought he could not make. And, it was a play that elicited an overwhelming ache in my heart. It felt like a vortex of light was forming, spinning and growing with each revolution inside of my chest. I was positive that it would burn away my shirt and blast through my flesh. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I sprinted down the sidelines to meet him as he came off the field. I yanked the bars of his facemask against my forehead, and screamed into his smiling face “That is how you do it! That is how you do it! That is how you do it!” No doubt. It was one of the most incredible set of emotions I have ever felt. And, as I watched his teammates pull him away from me, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to coach.
3. A Lump in the Throat is an Occupational Hazard for Coaches.
The game was over. It was my time to go. My players lined up. I took the time to say a few words about our time together. We hugged. I said good bye. It was a hard goodbye. I wanted more time with them. I wanted to watch them grow more and more. And, I wanted to be a part of their growth. Walking out of that locker-room, my eyes were bloodshot. I knew that this was a life I wanted to live. I can still feel a couple of those hugs.
A year later, however, the course of my life would change. One of my professors would ask me “What are you going to do after college?” My immediate answer was “become a high school teacher and coach football.” He stared at me a bit. And, as he walked away, he replied “You should think about becoming a professor.” I was stunned. There were no professors in my family. None of my friends back home had professors in their families. It was not something I thought I was capable of doing. But, he thought I was. My ego was thrilled. I always wanted some kind of elite status. And, I thought getting three letters appended to the end of my last name would do the trick. I also thought that the capital “P”, lowercase “h” and capital “D” would provide a nice veneer behind which I could hide my insecurities. So, I did it. I turned my back on coaching.
I ended up being wrong about the insecurities thing. It did not help. And, I have found myself chasing those ten days, twenty practices and one scrimmage game ever since. But, not all is lost. Out of this pursuit, I created my Rewilding pedagogy.
My classroom is my practice field. My students are my players. I dance all around the line that separates a professor from his students. We collaborate. We gather in huddles. We have our Friday night under the lights when we have to execute. I give halftime speeches. When they grow right in front of me, my heart begins to ache. And, even though there is a vortex of light growing in my chest, I no longer run up to them and scream in their smiling faces. I just let them know that I noticed. And, that I am proud. I still have to say to goodbye. It still hurts. But, we hug.
Now, I just need a sound pedagogical reason to introduce helmets, decals, eye black, mouth pieces, and nicknames. And, a good reason to walk into class, turn down the lights, and pipe in some thumping “Thunderstruck” from AC/DC.